CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Taking a hockey road trip to Providence and Boston is a great way for a college hockey fan to spend a fall weekend.
First, there is the gorgeous fall foliage on the college campuses and everywhere else. Then there are the New England accents, which can be so much fun to imitate (when they aren’t hurling expletives). And of course, the promise of east coast Italian-American food is always enticing. But the heart of it all is six periods of fabulous college hockey.
Watching our Pioneers play two other nationally elite programs in front of sellout crowds in both cities last weekend, including a record student turnout at Boston College, was simply awesome.
Here are a few observations about what I experienced:
FRIDAY NIGHT: DENVER AT PROVIDENCE
Friday night, the pre-game meal for Mrs. Swami and I was at the legendary Andino’s in the heart of Federal Hill, Providence’s historic Italian neighorhood. Made famous in hockey circles by ESPN broadcaster John Buccigross, Andino’s is known for serving chicken parmigiana — a favorite hockey player meal. The giant plate of chicken parm I was served — two enormous red-sauce-and-cheese-smothered chicken breast fillets stacked one on top of the other, with a hearty bowl of pasta on the side — could’ve easily fed three people. But that certainly didn’t stop me from pounding down every last epic, magnificent forkful all by myself.
Approaching Schneider Arena on the PC campus seemed quite festive, with the donor-named Calabria Pavillion (an outdoor, covered event space) jammed with excited Friar fans. Inside, the 3,000-seat low-ceilinged area (about half the seating capacity of Denver’s Magness Arena) would eventually fill-up with over 3,400 standing room-only fans. This included a brassy pep band that pumped-up the large and boisterous PC student section.
“Why can a smaller school like Providence have a pep band, when DU says it can’t afford one?” mused Mrs. Swami from the seat next to mine.
“That’s a good question,” I answered. After all, with 5,800 undergrads and a strong music school, DU should be able to maintain a quality pep band.
The PC students filled out one of the arena ends with pink-shirted students marking “Pink-Out Friartown” — a night for breast cancer awareness. Considering PC has only 4,100 undergrads, it was an impressive display of student affinity, especially if you include Friar Dom, the skating Friar mascot, who has been called the “creepiest mascot in the country” and “terrifying” by a number high profile media outlets.
The PC student section seemed to keep their cheering mostly clean, possibly due to the close proximity of a number of fully-robed actual Dominican Friars at the game. The same could not be said for a Providence townie, who unloaded a stream of full-throated F-bombs at Mrs. Swami simply for having the temerity to wear her University of Denver fleece (with one-inch high logo letters) in the arena concourse. Simply charming!
The hockey game itself was a nail-biter, with Denver the younger, faster and more skilled of the two teams. That said, the Friars were the plucky, opportunistic and well-coached home team who took advantage of their home fan support. Denver’s sputtering 1-9 power play effort, some fortunate PC bounces and some shaky DU goaltending (PC scored its four goals on just 18 shots) helped PC to secure the 4-3 upset victory over the Pioneers. While the result was painful for the 35-50 Pioneer fans present (and the thousands more following elsewhere), the weekend would get a whole lot better the next night, an hour north in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
SATURDAY: DENVER VS. BOSTON COLLEGE
Saturday night was supposed to start for us with the DU alumni party at Cityside Tavern, not far from BC. But Mrs. Swami and I didn’t make it there, as unending rain coupled with road closures due to the ‘Head of the Charles Rowing Regatta’ (a very big event in Boston) turned a normal 1-hour drive into 1-hour, 50-minute survival quest. So we headed straight for Boston College’s Conte Forum to get there in time for the game.
Over the decades, Boston College has morphed from a locally focused Big East Jesuit college to a highly-selective major, nationally-focused ACC University, situated on a leafy ever-expanding series of suburban campuses bordering the city of Boston. It’s an impressive place, to say the least. While DU may not be a Catholic school (or as big or as well-endowed as BC), it’s very much the ‘BC’ of Denver, down to the realities of mid-sized private universities with strong undergraduate and professional programs, similar international enrollments, similar college color palettes, the shared (and storied) hockey history, the similar founding years (1863 for BC and 1864 for DU) and the mutual sense of respect between the fan bases, coaches, players and even the fan blogs (LetsGoDU also has a great relationship with BC Interruption).
I had previously been to at least 15 hockey games at BC over my 40+ years of college fandom, and the local/national reputation of BC fans as somewhat sedate, golf-clapping, leave-the-game-early fans seemed fairly well-deserved.
In fact, hockey fever has re-gripped the BC campus. The arrival of a new coach (after a short period of malaise at the end of the Jerry York era) and three more NHL first-round draft picks joining the BC program this season have the Eagles sporting a #3 national ranking.
BC students who hold a student athletic event pass are admitted to hockey games on a first-come, first-served basis. On Saturday, more than an hour before game time, thousands of BC students had already filled up the Conte Forum lobby, spilling deep into the sidewalk outside in the rain, all waiting for the gates to open so they could snag their coveted spot to see BC and the Pios do battle. And they kept coming — more and more black-clad (for ‘blackout’ night) students filled the out the full allotment of 3,800 student seats in BC’s 7,800-seat sold-out arena. That’s a staggering number of student fans for a college hockey game.
What’s more, they were active and engaged — standing the whole game, and cheering, booing, singing, jeering, and always incredibly loud.
Hundreds more BC students were apparently turned away in this BC record student turnout, where almost half of the undergraduate BC student body came out to see the hockey game against DU. Hats off to BC for creating an exceedingly vibrant, loud and colorful atmosphere for hockey! I have seen big student turnouts at the University of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan, to name a few, but this huge BC student turnout (at a private school with 9,000 undergrads) was as big or bigger than at those far larger Big 10 schools. Check out the 17-second video below, where most of the BC students are wearing black…
The game itself was a cliff-hanger, as the two youngest teams in the country (nationally ranked #2 and #3 at the time) battled hard for all 60 minutes in mostly clean, high-skill, high-speed hockey. The Pioneers seemed to gain more and more confidence as the game went on, erupting for three third-period goals, including Carter King’s exhilarating game-winner with just two minutes left.
BC head coach Greg Brown said after the game that “Denver is a handful. They skate well. They move the puck well. They’re really mobile on the back end, and very active in the offensive zone…Their elite guys were a bit better than ours tonight.” High praise, indeed.
There were perhaps 100 DU fans in the house at BC, and one of them was DU Athletic Director Josh Berlo, who certainly must have noticed the incredible atmosphere all around him. We hope he was taking notes on how BC creates such high-level student engagement with sports.
We also know that DU players loved playing in that kind of intense, playoff-like atmosphere, with thousands of BC students chanting “F—k You, Denver” which, as the game proceeded, sounded more and more like respect, rather than ridicule.
“They had a lot of students here, so it was a good atmosphere and was a good experience for our younger guys,” said DU’s game-winning goal-scorer, Carter King. “We were happy to make them quiet in the end,” King said, with a smirk.
Bravo. I hope these DU and BC teams will meet again in April in St. Paul, Minn., with a lot more on the line.
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.com.